Russia Invites Trump Team to Syria Talks Amid Anticipated Warming of Relations

'We expect the new administration to accept this invitation,' says Russian foreign minister, adding that cooperation on issues like fight against terror would follow.

MOSCOW - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has invited Donald Trump's administration to participate in Syria peace talks next week to kick off an expected detente with the United States. He also downplayed recent comments by Trump and his pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, that hinted at a tougher line on Russia once the new president takes power.

Lavrov said it would be “right to invite” Trump's team to the talks that Russia is organizing with Turkey and Iran on January 23 in Astana, Kazakhstan.

“We expect the new administration to accept this invitation and send representatives,” he said. “This will be the first official contact, during which we can start talking about raising the efficacy of the fight against terrorism.”

The foreign minister also revealed that Moscow was working to prevent the extradition of Russian-Israeli blogger Alexander Lapshin to Azerbaijan.

Lapshin was arrested in Belarus in December for allegedly violating the Azerbaijani border. He had previously visited the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is claimed by Azerbaijan but controlled by Armenia. Lavrov said Russia “disagrees with the extradition to a third country of Russians detained abroad” and said its union state with Belarus “requires a unified policy in the area of extraditions.”

A displaced boy, from eastern Aleppo, in the northern Syrian rebel-held town of al-Rai, Syria, January 5, 2017.
KHALIL ASHAWI/REUTERS

“We will take all measures to settle the situation with full respect for the rights of the Russian citizen, who is also a citizen of Israel,” he said. “We are working closely with Israelis in this regard.”

Lavrov said he hoped Russia could work with Trump against terrorist groups in Syria, claiming Barack Obama's outgoing administration had “deceived” Moscow during Syria negotiations. He also said Obama's government also “wanted to secretly use ISIS in their quest to overthrow Assad,” referring to the so-called Islamic State.

A September cease-fire in Syria negotiated by Washington and Moscow quickly fell apart amid recriminations from both sides. Instead Bashar Assad's forces waged a no-holds-barred offensive in eastern Aleppo with the help of Russian air power, taking back Syria's second city late last year.

“Trump has a different approach that suggests he won't use double standards, so that the fight against terrorism won't be corrupted by unrelated political goals,” he said.

At the same time, the foreign minister denied reports of a possible summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Reykjavik, Iceland, leaving open the question of when the two leaders, who have expressed admiration for each other, would finally meet in person.

Moscow's adoration of Trump hit a slight speed bump when the president-elect suggested on Sunday that U.S. sanctions on Russia could be canceled in exchange for a deal in which nuclear weapons would be “reduced very substantially.” 

In response, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow has not been conducting nuclear negotiations with Washington and is not working to have sanctions canceled. Member of Parliament Leonid Slutsky said he "wouldn't connect these two issues and make the cancelation of sanctions a negotiating point in such a delicate area as nuclear security,” and Senator Konstantin Kosachyov said canceling sanctions “is not even a strategic goal for which something needs to be sacrificed, especially in the security sphere.”

But when Lavrov was asked about the controversial statement, he said it had been misrepresented in the media.

“What I heard from Donald Trump when he spoke was three things, the need to deal with sanctions, the need to see cooperation in certain areas with Russia, and one of those areas would be the dialogue about nuclear weapons,” he said. “I didn't see a deal suggested about canceling suggestions here.”

Moscow would be willing to restart talks on reducing its nuclear arsenals, but remains opposed to U.S. missile defense programs, Lavrov added: “I think we will want to restore dialogue with Washington about strategic stability, which like much else was destroyed by the Obama administration.”

He also offered a rosier interpretation of what his expected new counterpart Rex Tillerson said during a Senate confirmation hearing last week. The former Exxon Mobil CEO, who was once personally awarded an order of friendship by Putin, had said Russia “poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests.”

“Saying that Russia is not unpredictable in promoting its interests means that we're dealing with people who won't engage in moralizing, they will strive to see their partners' interests just as they try to promote the interests of their own country,” Lavrov said. This tied into the foreign minister's diatribe against “messianism” at the beginning of the press conference, during which he accused the West of trying to spread “post-Christian” values of “total permissiveness” to conservative countries like Russia.

Tillerson also called the American intelligence assessment that Russia used hacking to influence the November election “troubling” and said it was a “fair assumption” that Putin had been aware of it. But Lavrov said these allegations, just like accusations of Russian cyberattacks against Germany, were made up by those who wanted to create problems for Trump.

The recently leaked the dossier by a former British intelligence agent claiming that Russia had gathered compromising material on Trump, Lavrov said, was a “rude provocation” written by “some sort of fugitive crook from MI6.” As a whole, the accusations represented the death throes of the liberal “demagogues” Russia had opposed, according to Lavrov.

“More than just the desire to set Trump and Russia against each other, these are the spasms of those who understand their time on this stage is running out,” he said, “and soon they won't be able to recklessly promote their liberal values, values of total permissiveness in daily life, personal life and in politics.”

Later on Tuesday, Putin called the dossier "nonsense" and said "people who order fakes like this ... are worse than prostitutes."